Thursday, 29 March 2012


The Free World, by David Bezmozgis
In the Summer of 1978 the Krasnanskys, a family of Latvian Jews, gain permission to leave the Soviet Union as immigrants – they hope – to the United States.  A cousin has offered to sponsor them and hopes are high amongst the younger members of the family:  Karl the eldest son and his shrewish wife Rosa are eager to embrace ‘the free world’ and all the opportunities it holds;  Alec the second son, insouciant, irresponsible and handsome, has acquired a wife, Polina, through a series of misadventures that he still wonders at, and Polina herself is bemused at the enormous changes that have been thrust upon her;  she has reluctantly sacrificed her own life with her family to follow this one.  Samuil the patriarch would have stayed in Riga and let them all travel off to God-knows-where, were it not for Emma his wife (whose cousin’s sponsorship is the means to the family’s release from the constraints of the communist system) and her horror at the mere mention of separation from her beloved family.  He has long thought that she was simple, despite the fact that Emma has a medical degree – that means nothing:  ‘all her brains are in her womb.’  Samuil has been an ardent communist for most of his life, regarding with scathing contempt the bourgeoisie – in particular the white Russians who rampaged through his village when he was five, killing every man to be seen, including his father and grandfather:  he is a bitter man who believes in very little, but communism suited him well;  he was a decorated war hero and rose to a high level by Soviet standards  - he had a chauffeur-driven car! -   life was comfortable and he had respect;  now he is anonymous, an old nobody adrift in a new world he wants nothing to do with.
The family fetches up in Rome, where they must spend six months applying for visas along with thousands of other Jews in the same position.  Samuil, predictably, is appalled that he has to associate, even briefly,  with Jews of every stripe and strata;  he withdraws from all contact with this distressing, rowdy hoi-polloi and instead retreats into memory:  Karl, a born hustler, follows his natural bent and involves himself in deals high and low:  Alec accidentally scores himself a job at the Jewish immigration agency, and manages to invite trouble almost immediately by mooning after the teenage daughter of one of the families he is supposed to be assisting.  The family’s Roman holiday is certainly anything but -  a way-station, a little limbo on their way to what they hope will be a better life – perhaps not for them, but for the generations to come.
Mr. Bezmozgis has written a beautiful book about a modern-day Diaspora.  He was born in Riga in 1973, and his own family emigrated to Canada a few years later:  he is well-qualified to choose such a theme for his debut novel.  His rich and elegant prose creates characters that are selfish and flawed, chafing and railing against their family constraints, but still recognising, however reluctantly, that that is what they are and will always be:  a family, moored to each other.  Highly recommended.

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje
In 1954, 11 year old Michael embarks on a three-week solo voyage on the Liner Oronsay from Ceylon to England.  He is finally being sent to live with his mother, after years of being fostered by relatives.  He recounts the start of his trip dispassionately, remarking on the lateness of the hour, the casual leavetaking by his relatives and his descent into the bowels of the ship to find his cabin – which he shares with two other men whom he does not meet for several days, they being mysteriously occupied elsewhere.
My first impression of these revelations was:  what parent these days (particularly of the helicopter variety!) would allow their child to travel for three weeks by themselves to live in  a strange country, an alien environment never before experienced.  It defies the imagination, doesn’t it, but Mr. Ondaatje made just such a voyage at a young age, and there are large parts of this novel that are autobiographical – I just found it a distraction initially from the plot, being the fusspot that I am, wondering who did his laundry?  Who made sure he washed behind his ears – or indeed, made sure that he washed at all?
Anyway.  Once the reader stops nitpicking about hygiene and growing boys eating proper meals, the rewards are great:  Mr. Ondaatje is a wonderful writer.  He hasn’t limited himself only  to the novels for which he is justly famous;  he is also a gifted poet and his prose is lyrical and dazzling.  It’s a pleasure to follow Michael’s adventures as he meets two other boys also travelling by themselves;  needless to say they have some hair-raising experiences, but they meet some fascinating characters, too, particularly their dining companions at mealtimes at ‘The Cat’s Table’, so named because it’s the farthest away from the Captain’s Table, the social nirvana to which all passengers aspire.  In some ways this is the classic tale of disparate characters being thrown together by fate for a finite time, a ‘Ship of Fools’ forced to spend time with each other, but it is so much more than that:  the ship and its passengers are a microcosm, where the actions of a few will influence the lives of many for countless years to come.  Highly recommended.       

Oldies but goodies!

Rosa, by Jonathan Rabb
Germany at the end of the First World War is a defeated nation,  a shadow of its former proud self;  the Kaiser has gone into exile;  Socialism has reared its head in Berlin, and its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht have been captured and murdered after fomenting a sporadic and unsuccessful revolution against the current government.  No-one feels safe, and to add to the panic five slum women have been found murdered, each with strange symbols carved on their backs.  Enter Nikolai Hoffner the officer assigned to the case, a Senior KriminalPolizei detective, the classic brilliant but cynical burn-out – he and his family have come through the war, battered survivors the same as everyone else, and all their energies are now spent in trying to survive in a beleaguered city:  perhaps it would have been easier if Nikolai weren’t a serial philanderer (and defiantly unashamed of it), but Martha, his wife is wearily resigned to his faults;  she endures much to bask in his few gestures of affection.
‘Rosa’ is the first volume of a trilogy by Mr. Rabb, followed by ‘Shadow and Light’ and ‘The Second Son’, all featuring the familie Hoffner, and Mr.Rabb chronicles superbly their story against the turbulence of the times;  the insidious rise of Nazism; the birth of the German film industry and the advent of the Second World War.  He weaves complex and clever plots;  in fact the reader has to keep alert at all times to keep track of the many artfully portrayed minor characters and the countless nuances and layers of meaning:  he is several jumps ahead of us all.  The minor characters are a mix of fact and fiction – Albert Einstein, Kaete Kollwitz et al make guest appearances, and Rabb is nothing less than masterly at recreating for the reader the seamy, frightened and fatalistic atmosphere of a city and a nation desperate for change, but entirely unprepared for the terrible world-altering events that followed.

In the Woods, by Tana French.
After reading Ms. French’s peerless novel ‘Faithful Place’, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her first book, ‘In the Woods’,fully expecting it to be as brilliant as the second.  And in some ways it is;  it just doesn’t draw the
reader in as effortlessly to begin with – which is not a huge fault; but it takes longer to become comfortable with her characters, and the general busyness of the plot detracts from  suspense that should build quickly and dramatically.
A young girl has been murdered, her body left on an ancient sacrificial stone in an archaeological dig at the edge of a housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin.  The dig is being conducted in the remains of a wood and time is of the essence for the archaeologists as  a new motorway is scheduled to start construction on the site, ostensibly to link the newly zoned industrial area with Dublin, creating the usual ‘new economic opportunities for all’, especially the politicians.  The murder victim is the 13 year old daughter of the most strident objector to the motorway, and two detectives head a squad to find the killer, always mindful that twenty years earlier, three 12 year olds went missing in the very same woods;  one boy was found in a catatonic state, shoes full of blood not his own, and scratchmarks across his back.  The other two children, a boy and a girl, were never found.
The first twist in Ms French’s tale is that one of the detectives is the same boy who survived that terrible event.  He has decided for his own convoluted reasons to be on the side of law and order, and he’s not a particularly likeable character.  He’s supercilious, vain, and has a BBC accent, thanks to his parents sending him to boarding school in England to remove him from the intolerable pressure of the law, the media, and everyone who thought that he’d snap out of it sooner or later, remember what happened for God’s sake, and lead the authorities to his missing friends.
The adult Adam Robert Ryan is unrecognisable from the shocked and mute boy of twenty years before;  he is now Detective Rob Ryan of the murder squad, partnered by Cassie Knox, the first female member of the squad and initially (in my jaded opinion) just two cutesy and clever for words;  I have to admit that her character irritated me mightily for at least a quarter of the book until Cassie was invested with some failings and secrets of her own – and about time, too, I say! – then does she become entirely believable, her superhuman talents of deduction balanced by the very ordinariness of her faults and fears.
This is a doorstop of a book;  most thrillers don’t go in for so many minor characters and subplots, but as a textbook exercise in painstaking detective work and the gradual revelation of a villain that NO-ONE would suspect, Ms French’s first novel is an accomplished debut into the crowded world of crime fiction:  ‘Faithful Place’ is better – she really hits her straps with that one – but THIS one is a grand book, so
Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell.
Peter Brown is a first-year hospital doctor in Manhattan.  He is chronically tired, an arch-cynic, prone to taking all sorts of dubious meds to keep himself awake and firing, but he loves medicine and respects his Hippocratic oath.  He is a good and dedicated Medical practitioner.  And in a former life he was a ruthless hitman for the Mafia.  This is the first paradox in Mr. Bazell’s hugely entertaining novel:  the trained killer is now saving lives.  However, Peter’s former occupation is, naturally, a big and constant worry, especially as he fell foul of his Mob bosses and testified against them, gaining himself a much-needed place in the Witness Protection program.
Unfortunately, Peter is not the sort who fades into the background;  he’s enormous, a cross between Godzilla and Attila the Hun, but after six years of medical school and nary a sighting of his former employers, he is confident enough in his new identity to lead what passes for a normal life, as an overworked and underpaid member of the medical staff at Manhattan Catholic Hospital – until one of the ‘made men’ turns up for cancer surgery in Peter’s ward.  In a horrifyingly short time, Peter is on the run, and only his previous expertise at killing people can save him – oh, the corpses stack up at an alarming rate, and there are so many novel ways for the baddies to die:  did you know that the fibia in one’s leg can be removed (provided it’s done competently, without damaging the knee and ankle);  it’s not weight-bearing, and appears to be of no earthly use at all until Peter removes his own fibia, entirely without anaesthetic (naturally!) - to stab the arch Mafia villain in the heart.  What a warrior!  And Lincoln and Child, creators of Aloysius Pendergast, that peerless paragon of Right over Might, must be writhing with envy that they didn’t come up with anything half as outlandish.  Yep, the reader’s credulity is stretched to the utmost, but there is also much to admire in this story;  there are fascinating medical and historical footnotes, a huge and ironic twist in the tale towards its conclusion, and more humour than a body has a right to expect. 
On the library’s remark sheet at the front of the book, one person has written ‘Stupid’.  Fair enough, but another has written ‘awesome read, and that’s the one I’M going with.        .      



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